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Why Your Perfect Partner Doesn't Need to Be Ideal

Whether it's looks or personality, research says you should keep an open mind.

Rob Marmion/Shutterstock
Source: Rob Marmion/Shutterstock

Does your partner physically resemble your ideal vision of a partner? Does he or she have all of the personality traits you've always desired in in ideal companion?

Although our real-life partners may deviate from our ideals—just as our own looks or personality characteristics may deviate from the ideals we hold for ourselves—we can still be perfectly happy with our imperfect mates.

Physical Characteristics

When I was a child I used to watch the Dukes of Hazzard on TV. Even at a young age, I preferred blond Bo (John Schneider) to brunette Luke (Tom Wopat). In my teenage years, if you had asked me to describe my ideal partner, I would have told you that he should have blond hair and blue eyes. This preference continued into adulthood: I preferred Brad Pitt to George Clooney in Ocean's 11. However, in real life, I rarely dated men with blond hair; almost all of my serious relationships involved boyfriends with brown hair, and I married a man with brown hair and brown eyes. And while my husband's appearance doesn't include all the physical traits I thought I wanted, I couldn't be happier with my tall, dark, and handsome partner.

Some of our preferences for physical characteristics may not be conscious. They may be guided by our evolutionary history, such as the preference for a partner with a symmetrical face (Perilloux et al., 2001) or a pleasant scent (Thornhill et al., 2003). Some preferences may be influenced by more proximal causes: A variety of research shows that we are unconsciously attracted to romantic partners who resemble our opposite-sex parents (Little et al., 2003; Fraley and Marks, 2010; read more here). Perhaps I chose a partner with brown hair and brown eyes because my father had brown hair and brown eyes.

The preference for a physically attractive partner may also be unconscious for some individuals. When researchers ask individuals which traits are most important to them in a long-term romantic partner, people tend to say that traits such as a pleasing disposition or education and intelligence are more important than physical attractiveness (Buss et al., 2001). And while men are more likely to report that physical attractiveness is more important to them than women are (Lippa, 2007), experimental and speed-dating studies consistently show that physical attractiveness is equally important to both males and females (Eastwick and Finkel, 2008; Eastwick et al., 2011; Sprecher, 1989)—and that physical attractiveness has a stronger impact on our dating decisions than factors such as personality or education (Kurzban and Weeden, 2005; Luo and Zhang, 2009).

When it comes to selecting a mate, attractiveness appears to be much more important than we consciously realize.

Personality Characteristics

I recently attended a barbecue at my friend Anita’s* house. Her children were interested in how my husband and I met and why we decided to marry one another. They then turned to their father and asked why he married their mother. Our friend Luca stuttered and stammered and finally said that their mother had “the whole package” and that she was very “nice.” Maybe Luca couldn’t articulate his feelings for Anita because he was put on the spot, or maybe he was actually unaware of the personality characteristics that attracted him to Anita years ago.

Like physical attractiveness, we may not realize which personality traits are most important to us in a mate. For example, Eastwick et al. (2011) conducted a research project showing that participants’ stated personality trait preferences had a large impact on their anticipated liking of a potential partner based on that person’s profile—before any face-to-face interaction. However, after their in-person interaction, the trait preferences appeared to have no influence at all on their liking of that individual. In this project, the researchers created fake profiles for interaction partners which either matched the participants’ self-reported most desirable or least desirable traits. Naturally, participants thought they would like the partner whose profile more closely matched their most desired traits, and dislike the partner whose profile matched their least desired traits. Unexpectedly, after their in-person interactions, they liked both partners equally, regardless of the traits originally ascribed to them.

This study raises the interesting possibility that even traits we consider to be essential in a mate may not matter much after a favorable in-person meeting. This research also helps explain why trait profiles on online dating sites are not very useful in determining whether we will actually like a potential partner (Finkel et al., 2012).

What’s a Couple To Do?

Does it matter that our partner does not match our ideals? Fortunately, we have the good sense to downgrade the importance of our previous trait preferences if our mate does not possess them—and to upgrade the importance of the positive traits our new mate does possess (Fletcher et al., 2000). For example, if our partner is generous, but not thoughtful, we might come to value generosity more than thoughtfulness.

We tend to idealize our current romantic partner; thus we may believe that our mate possesses positive personality characteristics that even they don’t believe they possess themselves (Morry et al., 2010, Conley et al., 2009). Finally, our favorable regard for our partner may actually cause them to behave more positively over the course of a long-term relationship through the power of self-fulfilling prophecy (Murray et al., 1996). For example, if we believe that our partners are respectful, we may unconsciously behave toward them in such as way as to elicit respectful behavior from them.

The Bottom Line: Follow your instincts. You may end up with a partner who is better for you than someone who matches your consciously stated preferences, no matter how long you've clung to those notions.

* All names have been changed.

  • For more information about successful romantic relationships, check out our book, The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships on Amazon.
  • Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.
  • Please see my other posts here.
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